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Making cotton work with modified rows

Ginger Rowsey Shawn Hudspeth stands by planter
Shawn Hudspeth uses one planter for all crops. For cotton he configured his planter in a “4-n-2” modified skip pattern.
Mississippi cotton grower says modified rows help him stay profitable.

“Cotton built this part of the country,” said Shawn Hudspeth as he looked across one of his fields near Holly Springs, Miss. “We have good cotton land — sandy loam soil that grows good cotton.” 

Hudspeth can remember when cotton was king in Marshall County, Miss. He was selling equipment at the local John Deere dealership in the late 1980s when county growers planted more than 40,000 acres of cotton. But pest pressure and volatile markets nearly wiped out local cotton production in the 1990s. In recent years, acres have rebounded some, but Hudspeth is one of just a handful of producers now planting cotton in the area. 

So, he knows first-hand the challenges of making a profit on a high-input crop — even one grown on good cotton land. A few years ago, he said he decided to tweak his row configurations, hoping a skip row pattern could help him save on seed and equipment costs. 

“It was definitely the way to go for our farm,” Hudspeth said. 

Hudspeth is using a modified skip row pattern. Instead of a true “2-n-1” skip, he’s planting a “4-n-2” — four 30-inch rows, a 60-inch skip, then two 30-inch rows, followed by another skip.  

“We were at a point where we had to decide if we wanted to buy another planter,” Hudspeth recalled. “With this configuration one planter can do it all — cotton, corn and soybeans. I didn’t have to change anything on the row patterns, sprayers, everything works much easier. And, of course, you save money on seed costs.” 

Shawn Hudspethcotton-open-bolls

A photo of Hudspeth's modified row pattern taken from the cotton picker.

Cutting costs, not yield 

Hudspeth first experimented with the modified row pattern in 2017. He dropped his seed population from 50,000 to 40,000, which he said saved about $10 to $20 per acre in seed costs.  

He has not, however, seen a big drop in yield. 

“2017-2019 I had an average yield of 1,200 lbs/a. That’s land acres, including the skip row area,” Hudspeth emphasized. USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service shows Marshall County, Miss. averaged just over 1,000 lbs/a of cotton during that same period. 

“In 2020, I only averaged 960 pounds, but I blame the weather.” 

Hudspeth said he is also saving big on crop insurance, as he only insures about 75-80% of the field.  

He doesn’t see significant savings in fertilizer costs. While in past years he has modified his fertilizer rig to apply nutrients only to the rows, he no longer does that because he wants the flexibility to rotate his crops. 

“I don’t want to leave that 60-inch skip row unfertilized if I rotate to corn that next year,” Hudspeth said. “I’m probably wasting a little bit of nitrogen, but I’m not wasting P and K.” 

Ginger RowseyMen stand in field

Hudspeth and his crew, Cody Clarkson, left, and Garrett Hudspeth, right.

Things to consider 

What are the challenges to modified row cotton? Hudspeth cited PGR management and weed control. 

“Because of the 30-inch rows, we have to be more aggressive with PGR management,” Hudspeth said. “We start with PGR’s at pinhead, and we’re pretty heavy all the way through bloom. We start with smaller applications, so while we are making more applications, we’re using less product at a time.” 

With 60-inch skip rows, Hudspeth admits weed control requires vigilance. 

“You’ve got to be prepared for weed control. That’s the big issue. Anytime you have the 60-inch skip, or whatever skip you modify, you’re allowing more sunlight in, and you must be prepared,” Hudspeth said. “A lot of farmers don’t believe in putting a lot of pre-emergence down. They think they’re going to spray dicamba twice and then glyphosate and go home, and it doesn’t work that way with cotton. Even on 38-inch rows. Weed control is your main worry. 

“We try to stay on top of weeds from the start,” Hudspeth said. “We do pretty heavy on a burndown application. We’ll do an over-the-top herbicide application followed by another over-the-top application 10 to 14 days later. We may miss a weed every now and then, but we work hard to have a clean crop.” 

Hudspeth is a fan of cover crops, both for weed control and soil health. This fall he planted 240 acres of cereal rye and radishes. 

“The ground is so mellow behind the cover crop. Sometimes it can get ugly trying to plant into some of that, but it’s a big help,” Hudspeth said. 

Research on modified rows

A recent study at the Scott Learning Center found solid-planted configurations had a yield advantage over several skip row configurations. (Researchers did not use the same modified pattern that Hudspeth is using.) But data from the study also shows that cotton is pretty amazing at adapting to its environment, whether it’s wider rows or lower plant populations. The study suggested historical growth potential of the field and variety selection could influence success with skip or modified rows. Hudspeth has seen that on his farm, as well. 

“DeltaPine 1646 seems to do well with the skip. It’s aggressive. If I was on straight 30’s I might be in trouble,” Hudspeth said. “NexGen 4936 does really well, too. It’s more compact, but the yields are right there with DP 1646.” 

Going to be a good year 

After spending 20 years working at the Holly Springs, Miss. John Deere dealership, and another 13 working as a farm manager, Hudspeth was able to start farming on his own six years ago. He took over about 1,500 acres of land, when the farmer he was working for decided to cut back on his acres. In 2019, he and his son, Garrett, picked up additional acres. 

“I never thought I’d get the opportunity, and I feel very lucky,” Hudspeth said. “I can remember working on the farm with my dad and granddaddy when I was a young kid, and I always loved it. I love growing crops.” 

Especially cotton. 

“Cotton is good for me because my land is setup with cotton and it’s hard to get away from it. You’re not always going to have good years, last year wasn’t a great year. But I’ve got faith this is going to be a good year. I feel like we’ll rebound. Prices are a little better than they were a year ago and that helps, too.” 

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